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THE BLACK HOLE

Resiliency in science: We need to stop punishing vulnerability

The scientific profession is not for everyone, but there is no reason why we should actively be forcing people out.

By JONATHAN THON | JUN 11 2018

No one goes into a career in science expecting it to be easy. Less so for graduate studies. But shouldn’t it also be fun? The wonder of new discovery, the rush of finally understanding as the puzzle of existence comes into focus, the ambition of being a catalyst of the change that newfound knowledge brings. These things drive us.

The development of the scientific method – one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments (and a pretty recent one at that) – has provided us with the tools to systematically scrutinize the basic underpinnings of our world, and build upon each other’s progress to understand it better. But it also places upon us a tremendous burden of proof, and often forces us to challenge dogma and sometimes concede that much of what we believe is wrong. It is technically difficult, emotionally draining, and no one has ever claimed otherwise.

Why then should we compound on this further with unnecessary obstacles that discourage some of the best of us from pushing forward? Science mandates resiliency, and graduate programs and professional societies should encourage it, but there is a fine line between encouragement and abuse – and I worry that graduate and post-graduate science education sometimes veers dangerously close to the latter by punishing vulnerability. This is a topic that I often see come up in conversations about our graduate and post-graduate training, and one which was recently raised in our lab meeting last week. The argument for teaching resiliency in science is a strong one that is often made to justify our status quo. And so I wanted to leverage my unique vantage point as a past graduate student, postdoc, instructor, assistant professor, lecturer, and present CEO, CSO and chairperson to share the counter-point.

Vulnerability is not a weakness in science. Vulnerability is a human characteristic we all share that sometimes showcases our insecurities. This is a good thing, since it can teach us and others where training is lacking; and can be used as a tool to empathize with others to enable us to see the same facts through a different lens. These things are critical to the practice of science and should be encouraged. People, like ideas, should never be dismissed outright, and reproach in the goal of building perseverance can oftentimes also be degrading. Perseverance is not unlimited, and refusing to take the time to relate to the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of one’s colleagues in a misguided attempt to build character can cause tremendous personal harm. This is especially true when the colleague is a student or a mentee, and that harm is noticeable through self-doubt and depression. Tolerance for this behaviour also has further reaching effects, causing societal harm to our community when depression leads to attrition; and generational harm if this style of teaching is allowed to pervade higher education. There are better ways of teaching – the catch is that they take patience and time.

It is true that some people are more sensitive than others, some are more stubborn, but I’m not so sure the maxim that the latter do better in academic research is true – I’ve certainly never seen this data. Hardiness training is not what our educational philosophy should be structured around. Instead, good teachers personalize training and take the time to connect with their students. If you’re not willing to invest the time, you probably shouldn’t be managing people. Leadership positions in science require a developing education of how to mentor, and promotions to team leadership positions should not be based on technical success at the expense of relationship building and communication. At Platelet BioGenesis we have begun making training courses on team management and interpersonal skills available to our team leads and the outcomes have been shockingly positive. Whereas there is a substantial dearth of studies suggesting hardiness training works, there is a veritable overabundance of data showing that empathy training does wonders to improve managerial effectiveness and team output. It is not surprising that empathy training is among the most common programs companies make available to their employees, but to my continued surprise something that remains absent from basic academic education. Graduate students should begin receiving training in managing people as they take on their first students. This training should be mandatory for postdocs who are often de facto team leaders and could be considered middle management by most standards. And there is absolutely no excuse why we don’t require it of our professors who are, by definition, educators.

The scientific profession is not for everyone, but there is no reason why we should actively be forcing people out. The notion that there are “sensitive” types in science that are not cut out for the profession likely stems from both lack of focus and poor interpersonal skills. There is no question that our current culture in science amplifies this problem. Intense focus and technical rigor is expected and presently taught, empathy and communication can be taught as well.

For further reading, also see:

Adam Grant and Sharon Parker (2009), Redesigning work design theories: The rise of relational and proactive perspectives, Academy of Management Annals, 3: 317-375

Adam Grant and John Sumanth (2009), Mission possible? The performance of prosocially motivated employees depends on manager trustworthiness, Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, pp. 927-944.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the CEO and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis, and a faculty member in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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